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Batshkovo, like most of the other monasteries, had long cultivated a close relationship with the monasteries on Mount Athos. Wandering monks from the Holy Mountain came to Bulgaria; pilgrims from Bulgaria visited there. Ancient texts were kept and copied again and again. Artists found inspiration in each other’s work. A spirit which connected them with antiquity prevailed in the region.

Batshkovo and the monastery in Rila are today the most important of Bulgaria’s cloisters. Few monasteries are tolerated by the Communist government there. Once there were more than a hundred. Rila is grandiose while still being representative of the folk-art style of the last century, the period of national renewal. Batshkovo, by comparison, is far more intimate, cozy, and “lived-in.” Furthermore, in its mixture of styles both in the buildings and the decoration of the churches, it more clearly represents the long church history of the area. Today, though no longer housing the scores of monks of bygone times, Batshkovo is home to approximately a dozen monks. Often they are joined by scores of visitors and pilgrims who journey here for spiritual renewal.

In addition to being a spiritual center in Bulgaria, Batshkovo is an artistic treasure. The monastery uniquely illustrates the development of Bulgarian painting. Most of the buildings now standing date back only to the 17th century. The one exception is the old burial church. The so-called “Bone House” was once part of the original monastic settlement but now stands at a distance outside the present walled compound. Though temporarily closed to visitors while its walls and foundations are strengthened, the Bone House contains the monastery’s oldest wall painting, an image of Mary dating from 1084. Its fresco portrait of Czar Ivan Alexander, from the middle of the 14th century, was painted in the classical Byzantine tradition by Georgian artist Ioannis Iberopoulos, who inscribed the work in Greek.

In the early 1600s some of the older buildings were rebuilt and others were replaced. The central church of today’s monastery complex, the Church of the Trinity (also called the Church of Mary), dates from 1605. Its wall paintings, completed in 1645, cover both the entrance arcade as well as the entire interior wall. The magnificent refectory on the northern side of the courtyard was built in 1601. Its interior wall paintings were completed in 1643.

Two hundred years later Zacharij Zographos covered the outside courtyard wall with a wonderfully detailed panorama of the whole complex and its surrounding landscape. The Church of the Holy Archangels dates from the 14th century, but its paintings on the lower floor were done much later, again by Zacharij Zographos, who left such an important imprint on the monastery.

Zacharij Zographos, Zacharij the Painter, was a member of a group of artists known as the School of Samokov. Their fame rests in the fact that their paintings’ style and content offered social commentary.

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Tags: Monastery Art Architecture Bulgarian Orthodox Church Bulgaria